No Job Was Too Large When It Came to Creature Comfort : Animals: Thousand Oaks, with its exotic collection of Jungleland beasts, was a dream-come-true for Robert M. Miller, the area's first veterinarian.


He is the closest thing Ventura County ever had to Doctor Doolittle--an animal practitioner who has treated every creature from alligator to zebra, chimpanzee to cow, and lion to lap-dog.

When he first came to Thousand Oaks in 1957, Robert M. Miller was the first and only veterinarian in a sparsely populated cow town of 3,500 residents.

But it boasted a young vet's dream: Jungleland, an animal amusement park, home to lions, tigers, elephants and monkeys.

For years, Miller's growing practice catered to the varied clientele--the animal park's exotic creatures and Thousand Oaks barnyard livestock--until growth and urbanization pushed both out of the Conejo Valley.

Now retired, Miller lives in the rugged hills above Westlake Village on his remote Carlisle Canyon ranch. A published author, an animal cartoonist and a kind of veterinary legend, one would expect him to settle down. Not Bob Miller.

"We've hardly been home since the first of the year--I'm busier than I was when I was in practice," said the vet, who turned 68 last month. "I've got to cut back on this. It's just so stressful."

Miller retired from practice in 1987--but you wouldn't know it. On most weekends, he and his wife, Debby, are hot on the lecture circuit, leaving the Winnebago parked in the front yard collecting dust and cobwebs.

Miller has conducted more than 200 lectures and seminars in four continents, covering a range of topics such as animal behavior, horsemanship and veterinary science.

When he is not lecturing, he writes and submits cartoons to various veterinary magazines. Last year, he even worked a few days at the practice he founded--Conejo Valley Veterinary Clinic--filling in for vacationing vets.

"I never wanted to totally retire, but I never wanted to get on the merry-go-round this has been," he said.

Today, the Millers will travel to Marina del Rey, where Miller will receive a national award for his work in the area of human-animal bonds--The Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award.

Miller is the first veterinarian specializing in large animals to receive the award, which has been presented since 1986. His work in the area of animal behavior, specifically equine psychology, led to his nomination, he said.

Miller pioneered a technique called "imprinting," in which a person handles a newborn foal to develop a distinctive, trusting bond between horse and human.

He has also written several books, the most well-known being "Most of My Patients Are Animals," a collection of anecdotes about his years of practice in the Conejo Valley.

"My career took me every place I thought I could go," Miller said recently in an unusually quiet moment at his ranch house. "I thought when I took up the career, I would give up everything else."

But that wasn't the case. Walking around his small ranch last week in brown Wrangler jeans, a striped button-down shirt and a pair of worn cowboy boots, Miller recalled his early days as a vet in what was then a small town.

"It was very rural," he said. "The most complimentary term I could use for Thousand Oaks would be 'quaint.' This was not an affluent community."

Miller's practice has come a long way in 38 years, illustrating perhaps the growth and changing character of Thousand Oaks. When he first started treating animals in the Conejo Valley, Miller made house calls: spaying spaniels on ironing boards, euthanizing dogs on dirt driveways.

On occasion, the house calls came to him. One evening while watching television, Miller opened his back door to find a full-grown African lion. A local wild-animal trainer had brought the sick cat to Miller for emergency treatment.

Before moving to Thousand Oaks, Miller asked a friend from Los Angeles if he had ever heard of the place: "He said, 'That's that Oakie town with the elephants.' "

But when Miller and his young wife drove up the Ventura Freeway to check out the mysterious little hamlet, they were awe-struck by the rugged mountains, the grass-covered hills and gnarled old oak trees that lined the valley.

"It was just endless grass and grazing cattle," he said. "When the wind would blow this time of year, it looked like the ocean. I called it the sea of grass . . . it was gorgeous. That's what we lost."

As the booming population of the San Fernando Valley started to spill westward into Conejo and Simi valleys, Miller's business took off. Rapid development attracted new families, and as their children filled schools, their pets filled Miller's clinic.

When he opened practice in 1957, business was 50% beef cattle, 45% horses and 5% dogs, cats and zoo animals. But over time, Jungleland folded, the circus left town, and the cattle ranches were covered by tract homes.

"As the years went by, the greatest growth was in the household pets and the greatest decline was in the cattle," Miller said.

Today, his one-person country veterinary practice has evolved into a bustling 10-person clinic with vets specializing in various fields.

But even in the early days, there were busy times. Debby Miller, who worked at the clinic, recalled a particularly frantic day when she had to turn an emergency caller away.

"We had a full-grown lion on the table, and a baby elephant coming through the door," she said, adding that the veterinary profession "is a rat race, but it is not boring."

Throughout his career, Miller has treated a wide array of animals, including many that were not mentioned in his Colorado vet school textbooks.

He once doctored a sick dolphin at Point Mugu's naval research station after the creature swallowed a rubber eye patch. The Navy had been conducting tests involving blindfolded dolphins.

Uncertain how to make a dolphin cough up the rubber cap, and unable to contact a specialist (there was no such thing at the time), Miller decided to treat the dolphin like a dog. He injected it with morphine and hoped that would cause the animal to vomit.

It didn't work. But similar approaches have been used successfully on other animals. Treating a lion is really just like treating a big house cat, he said. Doctoring a llama is sort of like doctoring a long-legged sheep. And caring for a bear or a wolf is not too different than caring for a dog, he said.

The opportunity to work on exotic animals was one of the main attractions to opening a practice in Thousand Oaks, Miller said. Jungleland housed all sorts of exotic creatures--a fascinating addition to his practice.

"That was one of the things I found exciting out here," he said. Miller later became the "house doctor" at Pacific Ocean Park, a tourist attraction featuring marine animals in Santa Monica. Being a vet is not always a safe profession. Animals are unpredictable, and can be dangerous when poked or probed by a well-intending vet. In 30 years of practice, Miller has been bit by a panther, attacked by a chimpanzee, and knocked in the head by any number of horses.

Though retired, Miller is still surrounded by animals, including two Australian shepherds, three horses and two mules. But given his frequent travels, he is trying to slowly reduce the number of creatures on his ranch.

"It's like smoking," he says. "You try to cut back."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World